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Everything is an essay.

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
3 min read

I get this question a lot.

From Tim Stoddart’s personal newsletter:

"I love newsletters. They are great businesses, I enjoy writing them, and they are lucrative. However, I’m still unsure about the format. I have two options…
Do you prefer the lighthearted and more entertaining style of the curated newsletter? Or do you like the more meaningful, more educational, and more intensive writing of the long form article?"

I think this is a false choice.

First, it’s always been my experience (whether for clients or myself) that a properly curated newsletter is much more difficult and time-consuming to publish than any other format of newsletter.

Second, the length of the article is not a good predictor of meaning, entertainment, or engagement.

That’s why, especially in the case of personal newsletters, I say go with the “essay” format first. If that succeeds, and if you have the time, expand to a curated newsletter.

It comes down to what you’re trying to solve for in the moment. Most newsletters need to solve for consistency more than anything else. It’s the thing that eludes even the best publishers.

When solving for consistency, of both quality and quantity, your best friend is the humble essay. Why?

  • Anything can be an essay. It’s the most versatile format of publishing. Link posts, quotes, photos, videos, a Q&A, or just plain-old paragraphs of ideas — it can all be formatted as an essay. Essays can be a sentence or book in length. Whatever length keeps you creating, and your subscribers reading is the perfect length.
  • Every time I look back through my archive, I’m disappointed in anything that wasn’t an essay. That doesn’t mean that I was thrilled by every essay, but only the essays seemed to have any real shot at staying power over the years.
  • It’s less work than curation. Curation is the most successful way to format a business-based newsletter. But for personal newsletters, it takes a different level of work, time, and experience to do well. You need to be beyond the consistency problem. You can do both formats, of course. You should aim to eventually do both. But curation is a bigger boss battle than you’re likely fighting right now.
  • It’s ingrained in the way some CMSs are structured now, and the way newsletter readers have been re-trained to read, by Substack and the like. My stats and replies are confirming the obvious: readers increasingly expect a newsletter (especially a personal newsletter) to look like an essay. Instead of fighting that, figure out how to make it work for you.
  • Essays are crucial for any products, podcasts, videos, books, courses — any other direction you want to go in the future. Essays are so much easier to compile into products years from down the road. Trust me. I made a book using the content from my first 800 personal blog posts. 90% of the usable material ended up being from the essays.
  • It’s human. We’re in the generative AI era now. Establishing real human-to-human relationships has always mattered, but since early 2023, it’s been getting more valuable by the day. Mediocre curation is well within the capabilities of AI. Essays will be too, but they’ve got a little more time. Maybe in a year or two, we’ll all need to move to video as a last stand. But even videos can be a part of an essay newsletter.
  • It’s fuel for established curation newsletters – starving week-to-week for a good essay or two. They’ll send some subscribers your way.

This is nothing new. Blogging started out like this too. Everyone overthought the formats, but the most successful bloggers made their content malleable and consistent. The same was true for podcasting, video, and previous generations of newsletter publishing.

I would’ve written you a curated newsletter for today, but I didn’t have the time.


P.S. This is the ultimate writer’s studio. Dream big.

P.P.S. Yes, technically those three links did make this a curation newsletter. It was also an essay. This is why writing is an insane activity (that sometimes leads to sane results).